Evangelical Warning, Improbable Convert, Uncommon Ministry

By LeRoy Lawson

The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare
John S. Dickerson
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013

Good God, Lousy World, and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith
Holly Burkhalter
New York: Convergent Books, 2013

The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected
Nik Ripken
Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013

John Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession is depressing reading. Being told the truth isn’t always an “upper.” This book tells the truth.

At least it tells the truth as things stand right now on the American Evangelical church scene. The book is divided into two parts, the bad news and the possible good news (if we follow Dickerson’s “solutions for recovery”).

01_FMB_books_JN2Here’s the bad news. Evangelicalism in America today is:

• Inflated. That is, the published figures about our strength (“almost half of America is Evangelical”) are greatly exaggerated. The truth is closer to 7 percent and shrinking.

• Hated. You already know we aren’t winning any popularity contests.

• Dividing. Just as America as a whole is increasingly polarized into hostile camps, so Evangelical churches are finding ever more reasons not to have anything to do with one another.

• Bankrupt. The dollars are simply drying up. The most generous generation is dying off and being replaced by their stingiest descendants.

• Bleeding. Bluntly stated, we are losing our young people.

• Sputtering. Secularism is soaring while we are running out of gas.

Not a pretty picture. But all is not lost, Dickerson believes, if we’ll replace each of these six trends with his solutions:

• Re-Valuing. Recapturing scriptural in place of cultural values. Let God’s church be the church. In our weakness, let’s rely on God’s strength.

• Good. Yes, we are hated—so we should return good for evil, conducting ourselves as genuine Christians in our hostile host culture.

• Uniting. Resist the temptation to run from our enemies and from those with whom we disagree. Seek instead to be disciples of the One who broke down the dividing walls of hostility. Practice unconditional love.

• Recession-proof your ministry financially. Learn to be a church that doesn’t depend solely on paid staff, expensive facilities, and dollars upon dollars. Run on less fuel. One specific: avoid debt obligations beyond the next 10 years.

• Stanch the bleeding by developing real leaders who disciple real disciples. “Every spiritual leader . . . has but three callings: Love God, love God’s Word, and love God’s people. Or, to say it in another way: pray for laborers, find them, and train them.”

• Restart the engine of evangelism. Taking our cue from Acts 8:4, we are to be like those early disciples who, when scattered, “preached the word wherever they went.”

The author is practicing what he preaches in the Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona.

If you read only the first half of his book, you’ll feel like despairing. Stay with him. This is still the church of Christ, against which, he said, the gates of Hell cannot prevail.

Faith Refound

I love conversion stories, especially when they are about improbable cases, the “tough nuts to crack,” the “you’ll never get me to buy this religion stuff” kind. Like Holly Burkhalter, who tells her story in Good God, Lousy World, and Me.

Not that she was a bad person. She wasn’t. In fact, she was one of the best, sacrificing her many talents on the altar of human justice, fighting for human rights in many of the world’s dark places, where she was a firsthand witness to the worst that human beings can inflict on each other: sex trafficking, slavery, rape, genocide, uncontrolled greed, and injustices of every kind.

As a young girl she was a believer. Believing is what her family did, especially her saintly grandmother, who with her husband served for decades on a tough foreign mission field. After that they retired back in America. Then her grandfather died—and his wife lost her faith. She went into a deep depression. For awhile the family wondered whether she would resurface. Through extreme medical treatments she returned—and her faith returned with her.

But it didn’t return to Holly, who couldn’t believe in a God who could do what God did to her grandmother. So she renounced God—for decades.

As I said, she was a good person and she devoted herself to a good cause. She stayed “in the dark,” though, until a German shepherd named Fala taught her unconditional love and two adopted daughters from Asia reminded her that there was a depth to life she couldn’t explain, a connection with the beyond that she was missing. She came, kicking and screaming (as C. S. Lewis said of his conversion), but she came at last. She now writes as a believer—not fully polished, not fully understanding, but no longer fighting against the reality she doesn’t doubt is there.

And she hasn’t lost her sense of humor. She deals with life’s seriousness with a light touch and quick wit and a vocabulary that sometimes betrays her past. She lives, though, very much in the present, cherishing her new life even as she continues her ministry in human rights through the International Justice Ministry.

Grace Extended

Another conversion-with-consequences story that moved me is Nik Ripken’s The Insanity of God. God isn’t the insane one in this story. Nik is. At least from the world’s viewpoint, that’s how he appears.

Actually, Nik isn’t Nik, either. He writes under a pseudonym, which lets you know that, like Holly, he is also going to take us to dark places, places where the use of his real name could endanger some friends still living and working there.

He did not begin life as a Christian. Here is his simple description of what happened: “When I first encountered God’s grace as a young man, I received it eagerly. My trust in God was innocent and childlike. The story that I was told about God’s love and about His gift of salvation took hold of my heart. When I read in the Bible that God loved the world, I understood that I was part of that world.” And when he learned that God wanted “to reach the entire world with His grace,” Nik quietly assumed he had “a personal responsibility to fulfill that mission.”

That understanding took him and his wife, Ruth, to Africa, first to serve in Malawi, then South Africa, and finally Somalia, where for six hard years they gave themselves to relief work in places God seemed to have forgotten. No food, no water, no sanitation, no protection from warring factions killing each other, no hope, and no gospel.

So where was God? Can good really overcome evil? Can light shine in such darkness? I don’t have to describe the world Nik and Ruth and their boys had to cope with. You watch the same news I watch. Somalia has long been one of this planet’s most vicious places.

Still the Ripkens served, starting their own mission, then collaborating with relief agencies to bring some succor to the mostly Islamic population. Nik and Ruth were—and are—convinced God loves Muslims as much as he loves the comfortable Americans back home. They believe we Westerners have very little concept of the breadth and depth of the persecution of Christians worldwide. We cannot turn our backs on anyone.

When circumstances forced the Ripkens to return to the States, they left the field but not their mission. They have kept on serving from afar in Somalia and other places in Africa, in Asia, and in whichever of the world’s other dark places they can get to.

The book will not let you put it down. Neither will it let you off the hook. If God could use this self-proclaimed common man from Kentucky in such an extraordinary way, I’m afraid you and I don’t have much of an excuse.

We may not think we have much to offer. But Nik believes God does, and that God uses people like the Ripkens and you and me to get Christ’s commission accomplished.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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